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Jewish Journal

In ’84, sans IOC, L.A. remembered Israeli athletes slain at Munich Olympics

by Jonah Lowenfeld

July 19, 2012 | 9:34 pm

A view of the copse of trees planted in Pan Pacific Park in 1984 in memory of the 11 Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

Though they may not seem like much at first glance, the copse of trees that stands at the top of a hill in Pan Pacific Park is actually a legacy of the summer Olympic games held in Los Angeles in 1984.

More specifically, the scruffy trees were one of the ways the city of Los Angeles and its Jewish community remembered the Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympic games in 1972, even as officials from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) prevented that memory from being invoked during the games in Los Angeles.

The trees are a variety known in California as the purple-leafed plum, but two of them have no leaves at all. Five appear to have been planted very recently; of those, four are flanked by tall wooden posts that ensure no lawnmower or young child accidentally bumps up against a tree, which could damage their underdeveloped roots. 

But the plaque embedded in the ground among the trees is as clear as the day it was affixed there: 

THESE TREES STAND AS A MEMORIAL TO
THE ELEVEN ATHLETES WHO WERE
MURDERED DURING THE XXTH OLYMPIAD

Ignored by visitors and all but forgotten by the city’s Jewish community, the trees were dedicated on June 24, 1984. The IOC did not publicly remember the murdered Israeli athletes during the Los Angeles games, and today, 28 years later, the IOC is still resisting efforts to have an official memorial at the games for the athletes who have come to be known as “The Munich 11.”

An online petition requesting the IOC dedicate a minute of silence to the murdered Israeli athletes at the opening ceremony of the upcoming London Olympic games this year has garnered more than 100,000 signatures. The IOC president refused the request earlier this month, according to the New York Times.

Since then, President Barack Obama said on July 19 that he supports the request for a minute of silence to acknowledge the tragedy, which took place 40 years ago. Sportscaster Bob Costas told The Hollywood Reporter that if the IOC did not observe a minute of silence, he would dedicate a minute of silence himself, on the air.

The petition was launched by Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano, two widows of Israeli athletes killed in 1972, together with the JCC Rockland in New York State. It is only the latest effort by the families of the slain athletes to have a public moment of silence in their relatives’ memories at the Olympic games.

Spitzer began her efforts in advance of the 1976 games in Montreal, according to JTA, and assumed that the IOC would commemorate the murders in some way. Spitzer and Romano traveled to Montreal, where the Jewish community staged a memorial in a synagogue, which was attended by more than 5,000 people. No mention was made of the slain athletes at the Olympics, however.

“Ilana and I kept waiting for the moment when they would still do something,” Spitzer told JTA. “And we were very, very disappointed.”

Eight years later, when Los Angeles hosted the summer games, the IOC’s stance had not changed. According to an article that appeared in The Los Angeles Times on Aug 2, 1984, Mayor Tom Bradley and the local organizers of the Olympic games held a ceremony at Los Angeles City Hall where a large bronze plaque remembering the Israeli athletes was unveiled.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who was a Los Angeles City Councilman in 1984, attended the ceremony. According to The Times, 25 Israeli athletes and officials were also present, as were members of the L.A. Jewish community.

“It was a big ceremony, and I kept asking myself why is it here?” Yaroslavsky recalled. “Why isn’t it at the Coliseum?”

The IOC, Yaroslavsky said, had rejected the idea of placing the plaque in the Los Angeles Coliseum’s Court of Honor during the games. It has since be placed there, alongside other commemorative plaques.

No IOC members attended the City Hall ceremony, according to the article in The Times.

Yaroslavsky said that the IOC’s refusal to allow for a minute of silence to be observed at this summer’s games in London is part of a pattern for the organization, going back 40 years. In Munich, after a day of mourning the Israeli athletes, the Olympic games resumed at the insistence of then-IOC President Avery Brundage.

“There’s something about the IOC that has never sat well with me, going back to the 1972 terrorist action in Munich,” Yaroslavsky said.

The petition for a minute of silence in London, posted on the Web site Change.org, is not the only effort being undertaken by the JCC Rockland to remember the 11 athletes. In September 2011, the JCC unveiled what it describes as “the first memorial sculpture in the United States in honor of the Munich 11.”

As for the trees in Pan Pacific Park, according to the plaque, the L.A. chapter of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was responsible for their planting. JNF staff members interviewed for this article couldn’t find any information about the trees in their records, but an article that appeared in The Los Angeles Times on June 21, 1984, days before the trees were planted, included a quote from Sanford Deutsch, the president of the JNF’s local chapter at the time.

“Planting of trees is the symbol of continuity of life through the ages and the rebirth of the land,” Deutsch told The Times. “We shall always remember these heroes for their sacrifice.”

Attempts to contact Deutsch on Thursday were not successful.

Today, although there are 11 purple-leafed plum trees near the plaque, only nine of them are part of the memorial grove, according to Leon Boroditsky, a tree surgeon with the Los Angeles City Department of Recreation and Parks’s forestry division. (The two oldest and largest trees—which stand apart from the others by, separated by an asphalt walking path—predate the memorial.) Though the trees can live as long as 150 years, a few of the original trees have died out, Boroditsky said. With help from volunteers associated with the nonprofit group Tree People, the department is replacing the missing trees: Three new trees were planted a few years ago, Boroditsky said, and volunteers planted another new tree last April. Still, two are missing.

“Being a tree in a park is a difficult life,” Boroditsky said, “Not as difficult as a street tree, but it definitely has its challenges, with kids and dogs and soccer players.”

He said he plans to replace the last two trees in the fall, when the weather is better suited for planting.

“We think groves like this are important,” Boroditsky said, “and we want to maintain them to the best of our ability. But our staffing is really low.”

But for now, all eyes are on London. Steve Gold, a former president of the JCC Rockland who chaired the petition campaign, didn’t rule out the possibility that the IOC might change its mind about holding a minute of silence in London this year.

“I believe in miracles,” he said.

Should the IOC stand firm, though, Gold said the London games would not mark the end of Spitzer and Romano’s quest to have the 11 Israeli athletes remembered at the Olympics.

“If the opening ceremony comes and goes without a minute of silence, we’re not stopping,” he said. “We’re going to continue until there’s a minute of silence. There’s a summer games every four years.”

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